October 17, 2006

Clean-up -- Clam-up -- Screw-up? EPA's Nanotech Regs: Ironic Parameters

Hard on the heels of a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commitment to consult openly and widely on the development of a regulatory approach to nanotechnology, the government has given the green light to introduce more than 15 novel, nano-formulated chemicals. Additionally, the EPA itself is experimentally testing iron nanoparticles to clean up groundwater in “Superfund” toxic dumps in a number of locations. The composition of the approved nano-chemicals, their potential commercial end-uses and even the manufacturers’ names have been withheld under the EPA’s sweeping Confidential Business Information (CBI) provisions. The agency meets with industry and civil society in Washington, DC this Thursday/Friday to discuss its plans for a voluntary “stewardship program” for nano-scale materials.

Nano-scale particles (approximately 100 nm in size and smaller) behave differently from larger-scale particles of the same material. With only a reduction in size, materials may be stronger or lighter or more heat-resistant or better conductors of electricity – or more toxic. The impacts of manufactured nanoparticles on the environment and on human health are unknown and unpredictable and toxicological data are scarce.

In August, BNA (Bureau of National Affairs) reported in its Daily Environment Report that it had asked EPA to explain the agency’s review of nanoscale chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) following a notice in the Federal Register that an un-named company would begin manufacturing siloxane-coated alumina nanoparticles. [BNA, Daily Environment Report, Aug. 16, 2006, No. 158, Page A-7.] According to EPA officials, only one nano-chemical reviewed by the agency exhibited novel properties of concern to regulators. “The companies’ patent lawyers would probably beg to differ,” says Kathy Jo Wetter of ETC Group. “The government hasn’t even agreed on standards for measuring or otherwise characterizing nanoparticles and the EPA has neither the tools nor the expertise to evaluate them. Nanotech companies are telling patent examiners and venture capitalists that they are taking advantage of nano-scale, quantum effects to create novel materials while telling the EPA that these chemicals are just the same-old, same-old.”


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